'The pelican mafia': A short story by Natalie Barlow

By Natalie Barlow
FICTION FINALIST: The author took inspiration from this Marina Neil photo

Scarbeak looked at the wingless fisher. It was on his turf, taking fish that didn't belong to it. Where was the respect?

He ruffled his feathers and his posse followed suit. They were all experts in the shakedown, though he liked to think none had his delicacy of touch. Many fishers found themselves donating part of their catch to him and his crew.

He blinked. Baldy had brought along an unauthorised body. Scarbeak eyed the half grown pelican hunkering down beside its father and raised a wingtip in query. The youngster hadn't even lost all of its juvenile plumage yet.

Baldy clacked his beak in apology. "Sorry, couldn't leave him with the rest of the flock. He's bullying the others and stealing their food."

The three lackeys behind Scarbeak snickered but he snapped his beak at them and they shuffled back, bobbing their heads in apology. Scarbeak looked at the three feather brains and then back at the youth. Maybe it wasn't such a bad idea to bring in new blood.

Scarbeak motioned to Baldy with a nod and Baldy waddled over, wings half extended to help balance him on the rocky ground.

Scarbeak took a close look at the youngster. "He's a good sized lad."

Baldy nodded. "It's one of the reasons he keeps stealing food. Just can't fill him up."

"Bright?"

Baldy shuffled his feet. "Well . . ."

"That's ok. The bright ones are usually more problem than they're worth." He looked over at his three flock mates. Bandy was snapping at his own reflection in a rock pool while Whitey and Blackface were squabbling over a scrap of seaweed for no obvious reason. "Of course, something a bit smarter than plankton would be nice."

Baldy puffed up his chest feathers. "He follows directions really well, except for the not stealing food thing. I think he could be an asset."

"I suppose I could give him a trial."

Baldy shivered and seemed to shrink. "As long as it doesn't involve long distance flying. He hasn't got much stamina yet."

Scarbeak stretched out his wings and flapped them a few times, buffeting Baldy with the resulting wind. "As if I would put a fledgeling at risk. What do you take me for?"

"Sorry, sorry." Baldy lowered his head.

"You stay here. I'll have a chat with the lad. What's his name?"

"We call him Tiny." Seeing Scarbeak's incredulous look, Baldy shrugged. "He started out small."

The young pelican barely acknowledged Scarbeak's presence. His focus was fixed on the wingless fisher standing on the edge of the rocks, casting a line into the water.

"It's not even eating them."

"What?"

Tiny indicated the container beside the fisher. "It's got enough fish there to fill two bills and it's just leaving them in that white thing."

Scarbeak had no interest in what the wingless fishers did, unless they were tossing food his way. He was interested in how malleable Tiny was.

"Your dad thinks you might have some potential and I'd like to see what you've got." He swung his beak towards the fisher. "Do you think you could take it on?"

Tiny shuffled his feet. "It's pretty big."

"So you can only take food from little pelicans?"

Tiny shook his head. "No way. I never go near them. They always have their mum around. No, I snatch stuff from the older ones. They're always showing off, throwing the fish about. It's easy to swoop in and snatch something from them."

Scarbeak lowered his head to talk softly into Tiny's ear. "I'll let you in on a secret. These fishers are slow. Slower even than the oldest of us. And they're cowards. Snap your bill at them a few times and they'll back right off."

Before he could go into more detail, Tiny spread his wings to half mast and took off running at the fisher, clacking his beak as he went.

The rest of the pelicans stood frozen, beaks agape as they watched the youngster barrel forward.

The fisher startled and half turned, slipping on the wet rocks. Its useless arms pinwheeled as it tried to retain its balance. They watched as it slowly fell backwards into the shallow water. The audible crack as its head hit the rocks made Tiny rear back and stumble to a stop.

They all stood still, waiting for the fisher to move but it remained lying there, sprawled awkwardly on the rocks.

Tiny craned his long neck around and looked over at the other pelicans. "Daaad!"

Baldy half ran, half flew over to his son. He stretched out a wing, turning Tiny away from the prostrate fisher. "Don't worry. It'll be fine".

The other birds shuffled closer.

"It don't look fine," said Whitey.

Blackface approached the body and poked at it a few times, but got no response. "I think it's flown beyond."

Bandy began rocking back and forward. "What'll we do? The wingless ones get real funny if you get too close to them. Remember Old Muckraker. They took him away when he kept harassing them."

Scarbeak scanned the beach.

"There's no other fishers about. Nobody saw nothing. They'll probably blame the surf."

Bandy clacked his beak and threw his head up and down. "The surf! There's no surf. It's like a blooming mill pond out there."

"What's a mill pond?" asked Blackface.

"Shut it," cracked Scarbeak. "We all need to remain calm. Let's just all walk away, casual like."

The six pelicans began waddling quickly down the beach.

Tiny looked back at the crime scene. "But what about the fish?"

***

Natalie Barlow,the author of this piece, is a finalist in the 2022 Newcastle Herald Short Story Competition. Read the full list of finalists in this year's Herald Short Story Competition by visiting the Newcastle Herald website.


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